bush-blaming and tragedy

Last week, many bloggers were outraged that someone would blame bush for the mining tragedy in West Virginia. Though there’s no doubt that assigning personal responsibility to Bush alone would be a bit facile, the knee-jerk indignation should not prevent an honest assessment of where responsibility and accountability lie. The article on MyDD attempts to do that, but it falters with lame-brain statements like “The defense will be that Bush didn’t cause the explosion that collapsed the mine. My response will be that he didn’t do anything to prevent it.”, which set the tone for a personal attack rather than an honest criticism of policy decisions that may have contributed.

But the article should not be condemned because it was “untimely” or “disrespectful”. It should be condemned because it was poorly written. Bob Krumm’s primary objection in the comments is that “before an investigation, before a burial, before even the removal of the bodies, Bush gets the blame.” Frankly I’ve never understood this stance, and it smacks of an attempt to shut down debate on an contentious issue to me. We heard this a lot as the events of Hurricane Katrina unfolded – the “how dare you politicize a tragic issue like this!!” If you’re going to object to an assignment of blame, do it on terms of the logic behind it, not the timing or tragic nature of the situation. It would be irresponsible not to assess a tragic situation to ascertain a chain of events, accountability, and responsibility.

That said, Nathan Newman re-posted an article by Jordan Barab of Confined Space that takes a more even-handed and yet condemning look at the situation. In it, he addresses the statement made by ICG, Inc.’s chairman:

“It’s a horrible freak accident,” [International Coal Group Chairman Wilbur] Ross said in an interview yesterday. “Apparently a lightning bolt struck the mine.”

This is the sort of response that one gets the impression we’re supposed to hear and accept without question because of the “tragic nature” of the disaster: “yes, yes, freak accident, terrible shame, poor chaps. move along now, nothing to see here.” However Ross’s statement doesn’t square with the history:

According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Sago Mine had been cited over 200 times in the past year. Because the Mine Safety and Health Act require every mine to be inspected four times a year, numerous citations are not uncommon. The troubling thing is that both citations and injuries have gone up significantly since last year. The mine’s injury rate is three times the industry average and it has been plagued by a dozen roof falls in the last half of last year.

Although there were plenty of injuries, to a certain extent the miners’ luck held out – until yesterday:

Government documents also show a high rate of injuries and accidents at Sago. Although no miners were reported killed at the mine since at least 1995, 42 workers and contractors were injured in accidents since 2000, records show. The average number of working days lost because of accidents in the past five years was nearly double the national average for underground coal mines, MSHA documents show.

Some serious accidents caused no injuries. For example, in the past year, large sections of the mine’s rocky roof collapsed on at least 20 occasions – but not when workers were in the affected tunnels. Some of the collapsed sections were rocky slabs of up to 100 feet long. The most recent roof collapse occurred on Dec. 5, less than a month before Monday’s explosion.

This isn’t about finding a scapegoat and moving on. It’s about finding a way to avoid such tragedy in the future. The tragedy was an accident, but it should not be written off as an “act of god”. The slow erosion of workers’ rights and safety standards is an issue at the forefront of this tragedy, and it should be scrutinized, with the inclusion of decisions made by the Bush administration and others before it as well.